Another Flawed Planby Editorial Board
The Register-Guard, May 25, 2007
Two years ago, U.S. District Judge James Redden rejected the Bush administration's plan for making Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams safe for salmon. The ruling was based, in part, on the plan's bizarre premise that the dams are permanent fixtures of the ecosystem and therefore not subject to removal to help endangered salmon runs.
Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Redden's ruling, including his order requiring the dams to sacrifice power production to help juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean.
Given that one-two punch, one would think the administration would have returned with a new plan that at worst acknowledges the possibility of breaching at least the four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.
Didn't happen. The latest federal salmon recovery plan fails to consider any major changes to the dams. Instead, it relies on increased efforts to control predators such as sea lions and terns, using hatcheries more effectively, spending more money to restore fish habitat along rivers and streams, and making improvements to better protect young fish from turbines.
It's always risky business trying to guess how federal judges will rule, but it's hard to imagine that Redden will deem this plan any more acceptable than the previous three that he has rejected already.
The stakes are immense. Redden, a judge not given to making empty threats, has made it clear that failure to produce a new plan that adequately protects salmon could prompt him to order the breaching of all four Snake River dams.
Salmon runs have steadily dwindled over the past 150 years in the Northwest as a result of logging and mining in headwaters, irrigation, grazing, development and ocean fishing. But it was the construction of the Columbia Basin dams, in particular those along the Snake, that have pushed salmon to the brink.
Scientists estimate that the fish have declined to about 5 percent of their historic numbers. Meanwhile, taxpayers and utility ratepayers have spent more than $6 billion on salmon recovery over the past quarter of a century, with little to show for that investment.
The Bush administration has abrogated its responsibility to produce a workable plan to restore the 13 species of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered. That leaves the door open to all options, including removal of the Snake River dams - a move President Bush swore four years ago would never happen as he stood atop one of them during a visit to the Northwest.
While it remains to be seen how Redden will respond, it's not too early for Congress to act by ordering a new federal study examining both the benefits and costs of dam removal. Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Jim McDermott, D-Wash., have introduced a bill that would provide an independent analysis of the economic implications. The legislation also calls on the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate potential restoration strategies.
All of the players involved - from Judge Redden to members of Congress - must keep firmly in mind that future generations will judge them not on how much electricity the Columbia dams generate or how much it cost to breach them, but whether the salmon survive.
It's that simple.
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